Pioneering global development organizations like World Vision have learned that we can help a community increase its access to clean water, basic health care, education, and economic development. But if that community believes that boys deserve these things more than girls, it can perpetuate cycles of injustice, poverty, and domestic abuse. The opposite is also true. A community that values gender equality will progress with greater harmony and effectiveness across a range of community development efforts.

The need to foster gender equality worldwide is urgent. Women and girls make up 70 percent of the world’s poorest billion. Seven in 10 women experience physical or sexual violence, and 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, a woman is victimized roughly every 60 seconds, with little recourse. Poverty fuels anger and despair, making domestic violence that much more probable. Ultimately these factors can leave untapped or destroy the potential and productivity of half a community’s members.

In an effort to overturn such statistics, we adapted a methodology initially developed to address stigma during the AIDS crisis in South Africa more than 10 years ago. Called Channels of Hope, it received Babson College’s 2015 Lewis Institute Social Innovator award, and has proved able to change community leaders’ beliefs and behaviors in ways that radiate across entire communities.

A handful of organizations now use the approach—which centers around a series of faith-based community workshops—to address domestic abuse, maternal and child health, Ebola, and gender equality. It is proving a powerful tool for challenging destructive and harmful practices, breaking stigmas, and uniting people of faith to address development issues.

In countries like South Africa, the Solomon Islands, or El Salvador, a majority of the population professes Christianity. To address gender justice, World Vision uses existing relationships with churches and other community leaders to encourage (predominantly male) church leaders and their wives to attend the workshops, where trained facilitators start by sharing information about the effects of gender-based violence, including national and local statistics, and stories of women and girls  impacted by gender-based violence. The facilitator then guides religious leaders and their spouses through discussions, prompting them to examine their fundamental assumptions and values in the context of their own sacred religious texts. This analysis of religious texts and their influence on community behavior often leads to deep reflection on and public repentance for ongoing and past behaviors and attitudes. Such confession normally leads to forgiveness and restored relationships, which can form the basis for later community-wide change. 

Toward the end of the workshops, church leaders connect with other community actors—police, social workers, and health workers—who also undergo training and help reinforce community change. When faith leaders return to their own communities, they model the new behaviors and attitudes in their own families, and select the next set of participants. We have so far trained 575 facilitators and held workshops in 34 different regions, reaching more than 10,000 people.

Changing personal beliefs and behaviors

The changes can be dramatic. Senzo Sibahayi is a pastor with the United Christian Church of Umzimkulu in South Africa’s province of Kwazulu-Natal. “I learned to read the Bible differently,” he says. Where he might once have sympathized with the views of the men in his congregation, now he challenges them. “I ask men about gender-based violence, and they say that women provoke it by the clothes they wear. Or they can’t help it because of alcohol. So I ask them: ‘If I give alcohol to a 5-year-old boy, will he hurt a woman? No!’ It’s about beliefs and respect, and who has power.”

In El Salvador, Sandra Patricia Guzman, another participant testified to the importance of the program’s ability to stop gender-based violence. “We can’t change society until we change the family,” she said. “And that has to come from the church.”

Fred Sikine, a tribal leader in the Solomon Islands, said, “Channels of Hope for Gender has not only changed my understanding of how men and women ought to relate, it has changed my entire lifestyle.” His change was so dramatic that his father reconsidered an earlier decision to pass him over for tribal leadership, saying, “I have observed the way that you treat your wife and children, and your respect for people in the community … I am convinced that the life that you are living will set a great example to young and old in this community.”

Changing systems and structures

Beyond the personal stories of change, surveys before and after the workshops indicate that entire systems and structures are changing. In a study of the Solomon Islands done by Australian National University, researchers found that in areas where people participated in the workshops, the percentage of women who believe that women should not make decisions fell from 34 to 4 percent, and the percentage of men who believe a woman can accuse her husband of rape rose from 70 to 83 percent.

In a survey of one South African community, we asked participants whether or not they agreed with the following: ''If a woman experiences violence in her marriage, it is her Christian duty to submit to her husband and pray about the situation to win back his love and approval.” Before the workshop, 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. After the workshop, only 3 percent did.

University of Groningen researchers Erin K. Wilson and Brenda Bartelink confirmed not only significant change in attitudes at Channels of Hope sites, but also great enthusiasm for the program. Essentially all faith leaders who had participated in the workshop expressed some kind of personal change, and had begun incorporating calls for gender equity and family justice into their sermons.

Organizations seeking to help communities create a level playing field for gender don’t need to start from scratch. World Vision found the Channels of Hope curriculum nested in a small South African nonprofit, CABSA, and adopted it in 2003.

The stakes are high, and transformation can be radical. Men and women involved in programs such as these are discovering the freedom that comes from breaking down stereotypes and inequalities that trap individuals, families, and entire communities. This transformation is far reaching; it breaks cycles of abuse, releasing both women and men from destructive behaviors, and freeing them up to serve each other and their communities. Boys are carrying water; girls are going to school. Men are listening to their wives. And women are shaping their communities in ways that improve the lives of everyone.